World Hunger and Our Responsibilities
World Hunger and Our Responsibilities
At this moment, many people around the world are starving to death. Should we help them? Do we have a moral obligation to provide aid? People have very different views on this topic. An examination of essays by Peter Singer and by John Arthur gives insight into two of the many different opinions concerning the responsibility the affluent people have to the much less fortunate people. Also, these philosophers give explanations of the moral responsibility of society.
In “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” Peter Singer persuades people to help the people in need around the world. He explains that the wealthy people spend a great amount of money on trivial possessions, and this money could help to save lives. Singer explains, “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it (Singer 836).” Consequently, John Arthur argues that we have rights in “World Hunger and Moral Obligation.” Arthur explains, “It seems to me, then, that a reasonable code would require people to help when there is no substantial cost to themselves, that is, when what they are sacrificing would not mean significant reduction in their own of their families’ level of happiness (Arthur 852).” The difference in the two arguments is the extent to which we should give of ourselves. Singer believes that we should give until we reach the level of marginal utility, the level at which by giving more, we would cause more suffering than we would be relieving by the gift. Since we are extremely wealthy people compared to the poorest people of the world, much aid would be given before the level of marginal utility is reached. On the other hand, Arthur believes that we should only when doing so has no significant effect on our family or us. Consequently, giving until the level of marginal utility is reached would greatly impact any family.
One analogy is used in both essays to strengthen their arguments. Singer says, “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out (837).” Of course, by saving the child one’s clothes would get muddy. However, muddy clothes are insignificant when a child’s life can be saved. Singer applies this principle to world hunger. The trivial things we cherish are insignificant when we could save lives by sacrificing these things. Conversely, Arthur agrees that the child should be saved, but he does not believe that the principle can be applied universally. Arthur explains that we could also save a life by donating a kidney or an eye, and by doing so we would not be sacrificing anything of moral significance. However, one’s life can be shortened by the donation of an organ. We have a right to not lose an organ and to not have an unhappy life. Arthur explains, “ The reason for this is often expressed in terms of rights; it’s your body, you have a right to it, and that weighs against whatever duty you have to help (849).”
Another disagreement between the two philosophers concerns the duty we have to those on the other side of the world. Singer feels that we have the same responsibility to our neighbor down the street as we do to a Bengali whose name we will never know. “ The development of the world into a ‘global village’ has made an important, though still unrecognized, difference to our moral situation (Singer 837).” He believes that we can just as easily help a refugee thousands of miles away as we can someone next door in our modern society. Observers and supervisors sent out by famine relief organizations can direct aid to where it is needed. Adversely, Arthur believes that the starving people around the world are not our responsibility at all. He explains that we have not signed a contract or made a promise with these people, therefore, they do not have the right to receive aid. If we do help, it is simply due to our charitable spirit, not our moral responsibility.
Singer’s argument is an appeal to the altrusive, compassionate aspects of one’s personality. He attempts to make the reader feel guilty. People are dying of starvation, and nothing is being done to prevent it. Singer explains that the fact that no one else is taking action does not justify an individual’s own unwillingness to make a difference. For utilitarians like Singer, the consequences of an action determine its moral character. The consequences of not sending food to starving people are the same as sending them poisoned food. Basically, he feels that there is no excuse for people to not aid those in real need of help. Singer feels that we should be preventing as much suffering as possible, it is wrong not to do so.
Arthur’s response is an appeal to one’s rational faculties. He agrees that starvation is a bad thing. However, he does not believe that we should reduce ourselves to near starvation in order to help those who are suffering. He explains, “The moral code it is rational for us to support must be practical; it must actually work (Arthur 851).” Arthur feels that Singer’s moral code would only work in a truly altrusive society. It is important that a code not assume people are more unselfish than they are. Also, Arthur argues that a code cannot assume that people are more objective than they are; people usually rationalize when their own interests are at stake. Essentially, Arthur believes that Singer’s ideas are too ideal. Although his arguments are appealing, they are not valid in our modern society. Arthur believes that people have rights and entitlements to their possessions and money; people are not going to give it all up for the sake of starving people.
Although Singer’s accusations are extremely hard to swallow, I believe that his ideas are right. While I sit in a heated dorm furnished with the latest technological gadgets and a mini-refrigerator with an abundance of food, people around the world are dying of starvation. Although Arthur tries to justify our lack of sympathy with the poor, I cannot agree with his arguments. As Americans, we are extremely blessed to line in the richest country in the world. Although we tend to act superior because of our nationality, we actually had not control over where we were born. Like the starving people of East Bengal were unfortunately born into a less than sufficient community, we luckily were born into affluence. However, our good fortune does not give us the right to decide the fate of others’ lives. Like many Americans, Arthur justified the stinginess of Americans only to overcompensate for his own guilt. The statement made by Singer that is most emotional for me is that the consequences of an action determine its moral character. This statement implies that anyone who does nothing about the suffering is guilty of the moral equivalent of murder. Am I a murderer? That is a question I never though I would have to answer. I like to think of myself as a fairly moral person. I have never been given a speeding ticket, much less been accused of murder. Singer’s accusations cause me to question my self-worth. I guess I should feel guilty; I am at fault. I completely agree with Singer. Great measures should be taken to prevent the suffering around the world.
Although I think that Singer’s argument is the morally right one, I do not think it is practical. I believe that something should be done to aid these people, but I do not want to give up any of my own possessions. Like Arthur, I rationalize to justify my unwillingness to provide aid. I genuinely feel sorry for those who suffer daily, only desiring basic needs such as food and shelter. However, like most affluent people of the world, I am not willing to sacrifice my own comfort for the well being of others.
World hunger is a very real problem. Peter Singer provides a very emotional argument about our responsibility to prevent the anguish. Singer’s moral code is valid, yet not realistic. I believe that Singer is morally correct, but John Arthur is more practical. This is not a perfect world full of perfect people. People, like me, are selfish and self-righteous. Arthur’s rational response is the one that can actually be applied to our society. Although there is a moral obligation to prevent starvation and suffering, there will probably never be a universal fulfillment of this obligation. Like many other negative aspects of society, world hunger will probably never be stopped. Like John Arthur explained, people are biologically inclined to only worry about their own interests. Therefore, the moral responsibility the affluent people have to the less fortunate will never be realized.